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When your team’s been playing well, it’s one last thrilling chance to see them stick somebody—and not just anybody, but those mofos who’ve been talking shit since they stole the game last year.
If, on the other hand, your team’s been stinking up the place, it’s the closest you’re going to get to a bowl game—the last hope for pulling off a big win in the spotlight. And even if your guys can’t eek it out, well, at least they can get a few licks in against those bastards.... And when it’s over there's a silver lining: your Saturdays will be freed up again until next August.
I love rivalry week in the Big Ten. It’s the last set of regular-season games, when everybody’s squaring off against their No. 1 enemies. The emotions are heightened, the hitting is harder, the weather’s nastier, the fans are louder, the president-elect is weighing in on the BCS system …
Now, in truth, that last part has nothing to do with rivalry week, and this year it's got nothing to do with the Big Ten, since it’s unlikely that any conference teams will be in the national title picture, even if the next president is from the capital of Big Ten country.
And it’s also the case that sometimes the other stuff doesn't come true either. Certain rivalry games end up being as lethargic or lopsided as the lousier matchups on any other Saturday—and on paper it looks like that’s how a couple could go down this year.
But my gut—as well as the record of seasons past—tells me we’re in for some close and wild ones this weekend. After all, the teams are playing for more than football victories—at stake are conference titles, bowl invitations, a bronze pig and other prized "trophies," regional pride, and, in at least one instance, the latest opportunity to settle an historical grievance.
Here's what they look like:
· The Sweet Sioux Tomahawk game: Illinois at Northwestern. Illinois has more talent and Northwestern less than their respective 5-6 and 8-3 records suggest. Both teams have looked alternately brilliant and really freaking bad, sometimes in the same quarter, but for the most part NU has beaten the opponents it should while U of I often hasn't. The Illini need a win to become bowl-eligible, though they’re probably not getting a post-season invite regardless, while the Cats will be trying to avenge last year’s 19-point loss and finish with their best record in more than a decade. I’m guessing it will be decided by some kind of trick play or late-hour turnover, returning the tomahawk to Northwestern.
· The Old Oaken Bucket game: Indiana at Purdue. Someone will finish the season thinking, “Well at least we beat those losers,” and someone will be forced to concede, “Wow, we really do suck.” Indiana has the greater capacity for both dumb mistakes and big plays; Purdue is the rare team that appears to have gotten worse as the season progressed. But the emotional edge in this battle of 3-8 squads goes to the Boilermakers, who will be playing their last game under retiring coach Joe Tiller.
· The Floyd of Rosedale game: Iowa at Minnesota. Just a few weeks ago Iowa looked like tough-luck losers while Minnesota was popping off a series of surprising wins. Now the Hawkeyes just look tough and the Gophers predictably beatable. That said, Minnesota always plays hard in the HHH Metrodome, and their offense can be difficult to stop when it gets rolling. But Floyd, the great bronze pig—my favorite rivalry week trophy—should go home with the scrappy, hard-hitting Iowa Hawkeyes.
· The Big Ten Championship game in most other years / aka the Ongoing Toledo War game: Michigan at Ohio State. Some trace this rivalry, one of the fiercest in the country, to the border war Michigan and Ohio nearly fought over the city of Toledo in the mid 1830s. Others say U of M and OSU fans just hate each other’s freaking guts. For most of my lifetime, and well before, these were the two teams to beat in the league … though of course this year’s a bit different. As a die-hard Wolverine fan said to me recently, “This is the 129th-best season in Michigan history! Yeah, baby!” There’s no joy in Ann Arbor this year, and there will be even less when Buckeye QB Terrelle Pryor gets the chance to run through the Wolverine defense and into open field. But I wouldn’t weep for Michigan football. The Wolverines have a fine coach and an excellent program, and after everybody kicks them around a bit for maybe another year or year and a half, they’ll be beating Ohio State regularly again. This year, however, the Buckeyes should win by at least 17.
· The Land Grant Trophy game: Michigan State at Penn State. The newest of the rivalry matchups is this year the most important, with the conference title in the balance. (Though by beating Michigan, Ohio State would finish in a first-place tie with the winner.) The Spartans have never won in Happy Valley, and even though they have an excellent running game and make surprisingly few big mistakes—a real problem for recent undisciplined Michigan State teams—the Nittany Lions have superior speed and depth. Penn State should win by at least 10 and take the conference crown.
· Cal Poly at Wisconsin: The odd squad out in this week’s conference schedule, the Badgers instead host the Cal Poly Mustangs, who’ve racked up an 8-1 record against South Dakota, South Dakota State, and Southern Utah. Wisconsin shouldn’t lose, but this is another of those games scheduled for little reason but the money, and the patsy may end up being a tougher to beat than imagined. I don’t see a Western Michigan-Illinois game here (or a Wisconsin-Michigan game), but Wisconsin’s had an odd, disappointing year, and little would shock me at this point.
Out of the league:
· Syracuse at Notre Dame: The Irish aren’t in a great spot, but they’re better off than the Orangemen, who look to be waiting for the season to end.
Last week: 5-1